A simple question for Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred: What are you thinking?
When news broke that MLB was considering radical changes to its postseason format, potentially starting with the 2022 playoffs, I assumed a Twitter hoax was afoot, or that someone was tweeting a link to something in The Onion.
But no, baseball’s proposal isn’t satire, it just reads like it. Here are the major points:
-Seven teams in each league will make the playoffs, up from the current five.-The team with the best record in each league gets a bye directly to the division series.-The division winner with the next-best record gets to pick its opponent for its three-game, wild-card series. The other division winner would then pick its opponent, and then the two remaining wild-card teams play each other.-The bottom three wild-card teams would not get a home game in the first round.
There are other changes, too, including a made-for-television component that would show each matchup being revealed in real time. If all of this looks like a gimmicky, desperate attempt to appeal to a younger audience, without addressing any actual problems with the sport, that’s because it is.
Instead of committing to an overhaul of how the game is actually played — eliminating downtime, making the product more accessible — Manfred is instead looking to capitalize on the playoff-obsessed American sports culture to try to drum up interest. It’s a cheap fix, and one that, if implemented, will turn what was once an elegant, meaningful postseason into a muddled mess.
Baseball doesn’t need a major shakeup to the postseason; it needs to look to its recent past and make small tweaks. The best way forward is to make the playoffs more exclusive, not less, although if the league can’t bear to sacrifice the second wild card, which isn’t even a decade old, it can keep it.
The regular season should be 154 games, however, and every playoff series after the one-game, wild-card playoff should be seven games. That will reward division winners, who will be at less risk of losing a quick, fluky division series.
Those changes are more likely to attract younger viewers by ensuring that the playoffs start by mid-September, a reality with a 154-game schedule, and increasing the number of late afternoon and early evening start times. There’s a much better chance that kids and teenagers watch games that aren’t in the sixth inning at 10:30 p.m.
If Manfred thinks that increasing the number of playoff teams will cut down on tanking, he’s dreaming. If these proposed changes were in play in 2019, only two National League teams would have finished within five games of the final playoff spot. In the American League, none would have had that distinction. There would still have been a gaggle of 90- and 100-loss teams aimlessly playing out the string.
A more effective solution to the tanking problem would be the institution of a salary floor, and unlike a hard salary cap, which the players would never accept, there might be momentum for a floor, particularly among big-market owners tired of subsidizing teams who aren’t spending revenue-sharing money on their major-league rosters.
These ideas would both cut into revenues and force owners to spend more, but the possibility of up to 16 more playoff games and the national television windfall they’d bring might help ease the sting. Also, it should go without saying, but every owner can afford to make a little bit less money, since the ever-appreciating value of franchises is where they end up making a killing.
All these potential changes are being floated only because baseball hasn’t addressed its other, more pressing issues. Pace of play is a mess; the average viewer gets older by the year and the gulf between the haves and have nots has grown considerably. Local television deals are lucrative but have served to further regionalize the sport. A cheating scandal defined the offseason and will continue to be a story well into the summer. There are more strikeouts and fewer balls in play than ever before. The Boston Red Sox traded their best player in an effort to avoid the luxury tax.
Overhauling the playoffs would merely serve as a distraction from the real issues plaguing the game — and a poor one at that.
The only saving grace is that this is still just a proposal; hopefully Manfred comes to his senses, crumples it up and throws it in the trash, where it belongs.
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